The Historical Novelist’s Obligation To Readers, by Gary Worthington
The author’s most obvious obligation to readers is to tell a good story. I’ve always felt I have a responsibility to give my audience their money’s worth and to make their investment of time with me worthwhile.
I also feel the obligation consists of more than just telling a good tale. I like the following quote by Henry David Thoreau, aside from the gender wording that now sounds dated to modern sensibilities: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”
From childhood I’ve loved reading good historical fiction. I now try to write the books I would like to read myself; the novels that can’t yet be found in a bookstore. There seems little point doing minor variations on what has been done before. None of us need more copycat books competing with the better ones for our limited reading time.
Historical and cultural accuracy are essential in writing my style of historical fiction. I’ll address that topic in another post, as I’d like to focus here on other obligations to our audience.
I feel it’s important to subtly educate readers as well as to entertain them, I’ve tried to write my India novels so that even persons with no prior interest in the region will be engrossed in the tales and enjoy discovering what comes next. But I also hope that readers will absorb something about that important country and culture from the books. As mentioned in a previous post, many people from India buy my novels for their children to read to learn more about their own historical and cultural heritage.
Jane Smiley, in her excellent 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, likens reading a novel to a guru’s guided meditation, only longer. As one who has both benefitted from and led many guided meditation sessions, I think that idea is valid and I like the comparison. In guided meditations the participants should gain valuable insights into aspects of their lives and their place in the larger web of existence. The same should happen, at least to some degree, in reading a novel.
As Sebastian Faulks has his character Gabriel say in the wonderful recent novel A Week in December, set in London in 2007, “Books explain the real world. They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day. . . . Of my total understanding of human beings . . . ninety percent of it has come from reading books. Less than ten percent from reality – from watching and talking and listening – from living.”
I also feel that there’s enough depressing news in our world without the readers having to experience more from my writing. People already have plenty of bad days when things go wrong. They don’t need to have my stories make them even more unhappy.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t depict unpleasantness in certain scenes. Many historical events in India that are included in my stories are terrible, such as the violence in 1947 when India and Pakistan were divided into two nations. I also don’t shy away from controversial issues such as the conflicts in India between religious fundamentalists and moderates, or between many Muslims and Hindus, or between high caste villagers and low caste ones.
But I do try to have endings to my tales that are complete, positive, and satisfying for the most part and that don’t leave the reader feeling the story is too unresolved or too gloomy. I prefer to portray characters who, despite whatever odds are against them, still strive and succeed in bettering their situations.
I also like to have occasional fun in the stories, such as using the hunt for a maharaja’s legendary treasure to tie together my novellas from earlier historical periods. I like portraying characters whom readers enjoy spending time with, so even the villains have their entertaining qualities. In a 1660s story in India Fortunes the greedy Maharaja Madho Singh is passionate about art. The corrupt political operative Dev Batra in the 1970s always manages through his own actions to bring about exactly the adverse impacts on himself that he deserves (Karma on its own often works a little slow for me).
Finally, it’s essential to put sustained effort into the novel to make it as good as it can be. This includes not only ensuring historical accuracy, but also taking the time to let the subconscious come up with new slants that will make the tale a better one. I find it crucial to put the story away for some days or weeks, and then to return to it. By then I’ve forgotten much of what I wrote before and I can view it from a fresh perspective, much as a reader would when seeing it for the first time.
Another indispensable requirement is to find other knowledgeable persons to read the story and provide constructive comments. A writers’ group, if it’s a good one, can provide this highly valuable help. By a good one, I mean one in which: (a) the participants know enough about writing to provide useful suggestions about how to fix something that’s wrong, (b) the critiques are given out of a genuine desire for help, not involving put-downs or one-upmanship, and (c) the group doesn’t just talk about writing, but actually does it.
I’ll cover this vital topic of getting good feedback on your writing more in another post.
Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com
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